Jake Gordon

"Global Capitalism Has Developed A Planetary Consumer Culture Based Upon Exploitation And Exclusion" Discuss

In the West, the current economic system is capitalism which is based upon private ownership, which opposes a socialist economy with its state or community ownership. Consumerism has grown with capitalism, and can be seen as providing an excuse, reason or driving force for capitalism, allowing the masses to benefit through their individual consumption whilst capitalists profit.

Consumerism is becoming increasingly important. Recently spreading into areas of life which in the past have been controlled by the state instead of private companies (education and health, for example), people have more choice and so can be identified through their consumption. We've moved from a work-based to a consumer-based society (Bauman, 1988) in which people are identified more through their consumption and less so by their occupation and general citizenship. This consumer-based society incorporates its own culture, one with many widely different and contrasting principles to the work and citizen culture it is replacing.

Capitalism and consumerism have become global as capitalists look for new markets to sell their goods and individuals are tempted by the rewards and benefits of consumption. The third principle aspect of capitalist production, according to Karl Marx, is "[t]he creation of a world market" (Capital III, 1895 quoted in Bottomore & Rubel, 1956: 295-6). It is in a truly world market that profits can be maximised, and McDonaldization (Ritzer, 2000), Americanization and Westernization are processes which homogenize aspects of this world market. The result is the development of a single planetary consumer culture rather than numerous consumer cultures or a mixture of cultures, some based upon consumption and some not.

Companies aim to maximise profits, whilst consumers act as individuals, searching for the lowest price and best quality. Neither are urged to pursue issues of social responsibility, to tackle the problems of the divisions that consumption creates. The government and communities have historically been responsible for societal problems, however globalization acts to redistribute power from governments and communities to their people as individuals, through processes of democratization of technology, finance and information (Friedman, 2000: ch4).

This essay will tackle the nature of consumer culture, exploring the ways and reasons in which it may be considered to be exploitative and exclusive, both directly and indirectly. It will explore the benefits and costs of consumption, contrasting this with alternatives. Discussion will be channelled through seven loosely defined themes: resources, living standards, empowerment, labour, environment, ways of life and community.

Consumption requires money which is not equally distributed throughout a capitalist society. Resources are not unlimited, and part of a currency's purpose is to act as a rationing device, ensuring that resources are not overused. As such, consumption does not give full choice to all, but only those who can afford. But a question arises as to whether divisions are necessary for all or just the rich. That is, does consumerism allow the rich to protect their wealth through a devisive system, or is it a system which allocates resources in a fair or necessary way.

Miles (1998) looks at many ways in which consumption creates an illusion of choice for all, something which is necessary to ensure that the poor do not feel cheated by the sytem. He notes that "consumerism cannot be all things to all men and women. Rather, it protects those with resources from those without." (1998: 149). Whilst advocating the view that the rich will try to protect their resources, the word 'cannot' leads to the understanding that Miles believes that an equitable non-exclusive system of distribution cannot be achieved through consumerism. However, part of Miles argument is tenuous and short-sighted. He states that the "Internet... [is] clearly beyond the means of the majority of people... [and is] largely the preserve of the privileged who can access it through business or education" (1998: 147). Written in 1998 at the dawn of the Internet revolution, Miles' statement was partially true, but he was unaware of the network's exponential growth throughout a wider and wider cross-section of society. Today it is possible to go on the Internet in an Internet cafe for £1/hour, or buy an Internet PC for under £300, clearly placing it within the reach of the majority of people, rather than beyond it as Miles suggests. Admitedly there will still be some who cannot afford, at least for more than a few hours, but as prices continue to fall year by year it gradually becomes possible for the whole of society to make advantage of it. By the year 2005 it will be possible to buy a computer for under £100 which will be better than any computer sold in 1998. This fall in price and increase in power is fuelled by consumption and would not be possible in a communist economy at such immense speed.

The Internet and PCs in general is just one example of the gradual spread of at-frist exclusive products infiltrating to society as a whole. Other notable examples include TVs, telephones, cars, fridges, dishwashers, ovens, microwaves - or more generally, technology. Whilst non-technological products also spread, they generally do so at slower rates as their costs historically have decreased less over time. But recent rationalization of organisations which increase efficiencies, together with globalization, now enable almost all goods and services to be provided at cheaper prices, and hence are available to a wider number of potential consumers.

Recent critics have cast doubt upon the benefits of consumerism. "Many writers doubt that the consumer society results in the empowering of consumers and argue that it simply divides the rich from the poor" (Abercrombie et al, 1994: 84). It is true that consumption does divide the rich from the poor. But communism, an alternative to consumer-capitalism, creates no choice or empowerment, except for the ruling body. History also shows that past attempts at communism have resulted in stagnation and ruin.

When Marx wrote that "[t]he ultimate cause of all real crises is always the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses" (Capital III, 528, quoted in Bottomore, 1956: 145) it was during the industrialist period before the latest stage of rapid globalization. Perhaps he failed to fully grasp the full reach of consumer-capitalism in later years. Although the trickle-down effect has not been as great as was hoped, the 'masses' have benefited from consumption in increases in living standards. The rich-poor divide has widened, but the poor are now less poor.

Friedman (2000, ch. 4) discusses how the end of the Cold War (and the end of communism and barriers to trade) has led to greater democracy. Specifically he deals with the 'democratization of information' through empowering technological innovations such as the TV and Internet. Whilst the Internet itself was largely the invention of the US governement, the systems which it requires to run (fast PCs, network equipment, cables, satellite) have been developed predominately by private companies whose profits - obtained through consumer purchases - have been injected into fueling research and inovation. Rather than people now having access to restricted information, or only a few exclusive memebers of society having access, an incredible amount of information is now easily and readily available to everyone with a PC and modem.

Consumption has particularly empowered women, who in the past have been excluded from many activities due to patriarchy. Marginalised groups are also catered for through niche markets which are particularly possible through the Internet as it is global in scope.

Ritzer's work on McDonaldization looks at how consumer culture can be exploitative to domestic workers and the local society as a whole. "[r]ational systems are dehumanizing" (2000: 124), he tells us, arguing that companies treat workers as disposal commodities rather than accepting their human qualities. Almost anyone can get a job at McDonald's (suggesting an inclusive nature to consumerism) however the jobs which are given are sub-standard, offer low wages and little enjoyment.

But whilst rationalized companies like McDonald's may exploit their workers, enhanced through the effectual banning of trade unions, the company and its associated consumer culture are not based primarily on exploitation. Instead, the process of McDonaldization is based upon efficiency, reliability, predictability and control. Exploitation is an unintentional by-product of these primary goals.

Capital ultimately have few options but to seek profit before everything else. If there is nothing (for example legislation or pressure groups) to force Company A from using exploitative practices, then it would be commercial suicide not to, as Company B would do it instead, and could lead to the demise of Company A. Capitalism is increasingly competitve, especially since the prevailance of globalization and the ability to move capital quicker and easier across further distances.

The Consumer Association now act solely for consumers and not for those who may be exploited through consumption. That is, in reviews in their magazine 'Which?' they discuss the advantages of products to a consumer - features, price, quality - but do not mention anything about possible sweatshop work, environmental degradation and other forms of exploitation required to produce it.

In 1999 the Fair Labour Association (FLA) was founded as it was realised that if companies and consumer groups do not look after the needs of the exploited, some other body has to. The FLA is "an independent monitoring system that holds its participating companies accountable for the conditions under which their products are produced" (fairlabour.org, 2003). The goal of the FLA is to "advance fair, decent and humane working conditions (ibid) and does so through enabling brands to be differentiated through the use of an FLA label on products that adhere to the standards of the Internatonal Labour Association (ILO).

It is hard to argue that McDonald's and similar companies' consumer culture is based upon exclusion. Its products are cheap enough to be purchased by everyone in society. But the recent McLibel case brings aspects of McDonald's exploitation of consumers to light. "[T]he judge ruled that McDonald's exploits children, deceptively claims its food is nutritious, and poses a risk to the health of its long-term customers." (Ritzer, 2000: 215). Companies such as McDonalds spend millions in marketing and PR in an attempt to improve their corporate image to consumers. However, as this example also illustrates, often the money is spent in a deceptive or innacurate manner. Multinationalmonitor.org named and shamed Shell Oil as one of 'The 10 Worst Corporations Of 2002' "for continuing business as usual as one of the world's leading environmental violators -- while marketing itself as a socially and environmentally responsible company. " (nologo.org: 2003). McDonalds and Shell are by no means the exception, and closer to the rule in this way. Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop are two companies usually associated with high moral and ethical standards, however are condemed by Ritzer (2000) as not being as ethical as they claim.

In a fictional novel, Elton make an amusing jibe at consumption's ultimate goal: "Consumer confidence is actually considered a measure of a country's relative economic strength... Consumption is synonymous with 'growth' and growth is good... Judged by the logic of world economics, the death of the planet will be the zenith of human achievement, because if consumption is always good, then to consume a whole planet must be the best thing of all" (Elton, 1993:125). Of course nobody would advocate the destruction of the planet, but Elton does illustrate the point that current levels of consumption may not be sustainable, and that there is little room for manoeuvre because of limited choice in a global economy, described as 'Golden Straightjacket' (Friedman, 2000).

Consumerism has become global and may be seen as exploiting religions and alternative ways of life. The militant Islamic fundamentalists of al-Qaeda argue that consumer-capitalism and its associated Christian history is obtrusive to their way-of-life and must be stopped. Consumerism makes alternative ways of living harder as people are tempted by the benefits of consumption. However the important question is whether these people are then exploited or empowered by consumerism.

Edwards (2000) sees three key themese behind consumption, of which one is that "despite its expansion, consumer society remains socially divisive,... constructing new forms of stratification according to income, credit status and physical access" (2000: 188, italics mine). Edwards also suggests that "advertising and marketing tend to work to perpetuate, recreate and even add caveats and divisions to an already socially divisive situation" (2000: 147). Consumption may increase material quality of living, but here the argument is that in dong so it also increases societal problems associated with divisiveness.

When most people shop, the criteria for consuming usually comes down to a compromise between price and quality, little ethical consideration appears to occur. There are various explanations for why this may be. Perhaps consumers don't care about exploitation - they are selfish; perhaps they do care but have no choice, as all company's products have similar ethical problems; perhaps they do care and some products are more ethical than others, but information isn't readily available to document this; or they do care, but feel constrained themselves (by time or money, for example) and so must consider their own needs first; or maybe they're simply not aware that exploitation exists, or are unable to make the link between their own consumption and the processes required to get a product to market. Of course, these possibilities can also work concurrently within an individual consumer, or change from one consumption to the next, or one day to the next.

Bauman (1988) argues that often the fifth possibility above is prevailant as "[c]onsumers rarely catch a glimpse of the other side [those affected by their consumption]... If they ever visit the 'Third World', it is for safaris and massage parlours, not for its sweatshops" (1988: 92). The consumers here are distancing themselves and their consumption from the sweatshops which result. Whilst they may care about the quality of life for the workers if they thought about it long enough, they don't necessarily want to care - after all, it may take away much of the enjoyment gained from consumption if the full truth i known to them.

Bauman also sees various ways in which moral offensiveness is obfuscated by various walls (predominately protecting the capitalist) through the route of production, and masks (predominately protecting the consumer) which products wear at the point of consumption. "Walls seldom appear as walls; instead, they are thought of as commodity prices, profit margins, capital exports, taxation levels. One cannot desire poverty for others without feeling morally contemptible; but one can desire lower taxes." (1988: 93).

Consumer culture has been discussed as either protecting the rich or allocating resources fiarly or necessarily. It has been seen to increase living standards for all whilst accentuating a divide between the rich an poor. Whist it empowers it also divides. Through technology it promises a sustainable way-of-life, although currently exploits the environment in unsustainable ways. It tempts people away from alternative ways-of-living, but does so in an exploitative manne. It is based upon individual selfishness and not communal goals.

To conclude, it is evident that global capitalism has developed a panetary consumer culture and that that culture both excludes and exploits. However, consumer culture is not 'based' upon exploitation and exclusion. Instead, it is based upon progress and the continual rise of living standards. It is an unfortunate consequence that this occurs in an exploitative and exclusive way, but it is not an intended goal.

[2,855 words, written 2002]


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by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved